This is the last part of a discussion with Kristin Naca, the Spring 2011 Visiting Poet in Residence for Old Dominion University’s MFA Creative Writing Program, that took place this past June. There are two upcoming events in Norfolk, Va., featuring Naca that are open to the public. Admission is free. You should check them out:
- From noon to 1 p.m., Wednesday, March 16, there is a craft talk called “The Secret Tradition: How Translation Revolutionized 20th Century Poetry.” The talk will be held in the Burgess Room, 9024, in the Batten Arts and Letter Building, at the corner of West 45th St. and Hampton Boulevard, Norfolk, or across Hampton Boulevard from the Ted Constant Convocation Center.
- And at 5:30 p.m., Thursday, March 17, Naca will hold a poetry reading at the University Village Bookstore. Copies of her book will be available for purchase and signing, and refreshments will be provided. The bookstore is located at 4417 Monarch Way, Norfolk, at the corner of Monarch Way and West 45th St.
Naca is the author of Bird Eating Bird. What follows has been edited for clarity and length.
Q: When you read the third draft or the fiftieth draft, do you know that you have it?
(Laughs.) Sometimes. Well, when it’s encroaching on really finished, I’ve probably been working on it for a while and typically I’ll be able to figure that out that it is done, that the plaster is setting. I think the trick for me is I’m pretty open. I didn’t care how long it was going to take me to finish a poem. There were a couple of poems that were published in a really different version that were reworked for the book. Sometimes you really just need the right word from somebody and it will motivate you to work really hard at your work. … Like the last poem (in Bird Eating Bird), “Catching Cardinals,” Prairie Schooner published an earlier version of that poem. It went from a poem that looked like a baptism poem about the kid. It told the story that it wanted to tell in that form and then my advisor said I don’t want this to look like a composed poem, so she asked me to break it up into quatrains and then I did that. And then my girlfriend at the time saw it published in quatrains and she asked why it was in quatrains. When she said that, it helped me rekindle a memory of being in a poet, David Wagoner’s, class. David is a really well known poet who is a phenomenal teacher. He has a lot of poems memorized and he could just do off the top of his head. He was a poet who tried to help all of us at University of Washington train our ear. It was very much his idea that these numbered kinds of stanzas are more like musical measures. So a couplet is really supposed to work musically as a couplet in and of itself. So he would recite Wallace Stevens, and then it was like oh I can hear the couplets. I don’t need to hear them for the story to be told, I need to hear them because rhythmically it makes a song. … Then working with my friend who is a formalist … I’ve always tried to write formal poems to train as I write my work but finally I felt like this form, the quatrain form, would force me to cut out all the unnecessary language, for one, and it would shape the story in a way that I wouldn’t be in control of, but if I worked the form it would heighten the effect of the poem.
Q: I hadn’t even thought of that but given the topic …
Yeah. I think I only learned that from taking a form workshop to varying degrees of success. Every time I took one I got better. ‘I’d better do this because this poem is going to be so cool.’
Q: The class we’re taking is an Asian American lit class and one of the themes that we’re talking about is assimilation and I wondered if you could talk about that poem (“Catching Cardinals”) and assimilation.
That’s a great question. This is a form of community established in the United States that inaccurately, historically combines conservative politics with conservative forms. I don’t know why that is but if you know the history of poetry, you history of form, cultures around the world are writing in various set forms. And I think the book of poetry that helped me get over the hump to learn how to write in quatrains was Songs of Gold Mountain, which was a book from Chinese migrant communities. The translations are pretty remarkable. They’re able to translate the meter of a couplet in the original poem. The translations are beautiful and demonstrate how different a couplet is in English, a British sort of influence, a Western influence, to what the couplet does coming from the East. There is a great deal more melancholy in the couplet from the East. It’s sort of relinquishes control. It’s haunting. I was teaching and Asian American poetic class that fall and finally I had the music of the couplet that I wanted to write in my ear. At first I’m doing something like classic borrowing but from an Asian form, not necessarily a British form. … I’m going from a Western concept but then from an Eastern concept I’m learning that sense of melancholy and this is the kind of couplet. It was an amazing opportunity for me. … Then there’s like resistance. People who don’t know that history will easily read it as a Western treatment.
Q: Is that frustrating?
It’s actually a little demoralizing. I think people sometimes like the sound of the poem but don’t understand. I don’t know that any one poet or any one audience could ever understand all of the treatments that I was using. Or the historical conversations that are happening … I don’t know (how) to feel about it but I definitely know that I do feel. I guess it’s just lucky if people get anything. … To hear certain lines in your voice and your construction and how you are translating – how you know a certain line or a certain thought – that has a lot of meaning for me. Maybe I talk to people who see the poems or good or relevant, but so much of the subject matter in the book it’s completely theological to them. That’s a little bit of an intensifying of my experience. … It’s kind of a sad reminder. You can’t teach people everything and you can’t say everything either.
Q: When I read the reference to your uncle in Manila I just think it takes the poem to a whole other place. The way I process things is it makes me think of things from my own life. But I don’t think I would have noticed certain lines that I noticed had I not taken this class.
That’s a good argument for those kinds of cultural studies and ethnic studies classes. The reason you do that is you don’t know anything in the first place.
Q: What do you want people to take away from your work?
Try to understand to let the poem effect you and to open your heart to the poem. If you can do that it really cuts down the barriers. If I could request anything, not even tell people to do it is, especially if they don’t understand it, is to read it with their heart first.
For more information on Naca, please visit her site here.